Biennale consultation empowers students

Collarenebri students are brought on board for the international festival of contemporary art.

07 May 2020
Image: Students Terry-Lee Murray, Tobi Cochrane and Jase Peters present coolamons made by Collarenebri students to Biennale artistic director Brook Andrew. Credit: Greta Morton.

Collarenebri Central School students have learned the power of asking permission.

As part of the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, the students took part in a community consultation on whether to allow the exhibition to include a 1949 film about the removal of sacred Dendroglyphs (carved trees) from the traditional Bora Ground near Collarenebri.

The Biennale of Sydney artistic director Brook Andrew and his team visited the community for the consultation in February at the invitation of Kamilaroi Elder Roslyn McGregor.

The day involved the students and community members taking Mr Andrew out to the Collymongle carved trees and conducting a smoking ceremony to welcome him on to Kamilaroi land.

They then began the process of community consultation on Mr Andrew’s request to use the footage from the 1949 film by anthropologist Harry Balfour of the trees being removed from the land without the approval of traditional owners.

“It is important that communities have first say in the legacy, depiction and presentation of cultural materials … sovereignty is at the centre of these actions,” Mr Andrew said.

The first Indigenous artistic director of the Sydney Biennale, Mr Andrew has made First Nations a focus of the 2020 event through the theme NIRIN, meaning ‘edge’ in Wiradjuri. The Biennale opened on March 14 but has been moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Collarenebri Central School senior students Jase Peters, Tobi Cochrane, Dale Barden, Terri-Lee Murray and Aaron Smith were part of the consultation process.

Jase said taking part in the community consultation was a great learning experience.

“It allowed us to come together as a community and make decisions together; it made me feel respected and proud of my culture and heritage,” Jase said.

Dale said he had never seen the footage before and it was “really sad” watching the video with his community, but the process of consultation was important and empowering.

“It made me feel respected as an Aboriginal person and that our culture was valued,” Dale said.

“It was great that Brook came to ask our permission and didn't just use the footage, I felt a great sense of emotion and belonging during the smoking ceremony.”

Ms McGregor said students examined the ethics and protocols of community consultation as part of the Aboriginal Studies curriculum.

“What better way to learn about this process than to witness it in the students’ own community,” she said.

Collarenebri Central School principal Michael Davison said the students had felt privileged to be part of the consultation event.

“It was important because for a long time the Aboriginal community wasn’t asked what they thought and for our students to take part in the consultation process was wonderful,” Mr Davison said.

“It’s also the first time our students have been involved with the Biennale and it’s been a great opportunity for them to embrace their history and culture.”

Footage from the Balfour film was suspended above the Level One Gallery in the Museum of Contemporary Art, which can be viewed as part of the MCA’s virtual tour.

The film is part of ‘Powerful Objects’, which are historical pieces placed throughout the exhibition. It is not incorporated into any of the artworks but instead is “in conversation” with the works at the MCA.

  • Student voices
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